Youth sports are broken and need to be fixed. The problem is that, too often, the kids just aren't having fun. And the children themselves are voting with their feet: By the age of 12, more than 75 percent of all kids who have played organized sports have dropped out.
In many cases, it's the coaches turning kids off, with a style that nears - or at times reaches - verbal or physical abuse. Young athletes are also turned off by displays of violence among parents and coaches - a behavior that breaks out at times in all organized youth team sports across the nation.
These discouraging statistics aside, parents should agree that they would rather see their children spending their free time playing organized sports rather than, say, sitting around watching television, playing Nintendo, or getting in trouble.
In order to preserve the integrity of youth sports, parents and coaches need to change their behavior. But as someone who works in a professional sports organization steeped in the tradition of winning and losing, I know firsthand that a shift from focusing on the final score to improving the children's experience will meet with resistance.
For more than a dozen years, I've developed youth sports programs and played a role in soccer's growth in the US as well as youth football's resurgence.
But after all the hours studying, developing, and consulting with the likes of soccer player Mia Hamm and football hall-of-famers Boomer Esiason and Bill Walsh to shape the future of these sports, I still face the largest challenge of my career: How to improve the game for kids?
Children drop out of sports for many reasons. It is not unrealistic to believe that kids are turned off by how, as they get older, sports exclude many players while a chosen few get to participate. Some who make the team end up "riding the bench," which is no fun.
In addition, some youth coaches have little or no experience in teaching a sport, and therefore don't know how to develop a young person's talent or teach the entire game. Some coaches aren't patient enough to allow kids to make mistakes or play in positions where they feel most comfortable.
But perhaps most disturbing is the issue of violence at youth sports events. At the National Football League, we have been asking ourselves what we can do.
Do we lecture parents and have them sign behavior agreements? Do we conduct seminars for coaches? We've tried both, but they haven't solved the problem.
The bottom line is, it's time to give sports back to kids.
A coach's role should be as a teacher, preparing participants for competition. Instead, his or her presence on the sidelines often interferes with the flow of fun competition. There is nothing worse than a raging coach stalking the sidelines of a youth game. Recently we hosted the first NFL Flag National Championship for 10- to 14-year-old boys and girls. Coaches were forbidden from coaching during games, and players developed their own plays. It was a big success.
In NFL youth programs we require that every coach develop the skills of every participant, and we stipulate that everyone receive equal instruction and playing time. This behavior check applies to parents, too.
Parents who constantly watch the scoreboard put unnecessary pressure on their children, instead of helping them recognize their progress over time. Without this kind of parental pressure, the children's confidence, ability, and joy in playing would naturally increase.
The results are wonderful for the children when parents and coaches play no role other than supportive and encouraging fans. Let children play like children for a while. There's plenty of time for experiencing the scrutiny of intense competition and pushing through pain and disappointment when they reach the high-school level.
Give the game back to kids, and you might be surprised that the youthful delight they express is more rewarding to watch than the score at the end of the game.
Scott Lancaster is senior director of youth-football development for the National Football League.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society